The Best Music Of 2014
Posted 01/20/2015 by cal
The Beast. Many, many words and numbers and links (and even a few playlists) concerning my favorite musicks of 2014. Enjoy.
With 2014 still fresh in our minds, it sticks out as a year of death. Widespread media coverage of the class and culture wars going on in this country alone has made us acutely aware of systematic death realities as well as freak random bursts of death, and in my experience at least, it bled into my musical life. I spent a lot of time last year with artists like Hello Death and Death Blues, and also Old Earth, whose music is sometimes a little death-obsessed and has probably helped me cope with death more than any other music I can think of. There's the Sun Kil Moon album, which has three songs not about death and eight songs pretty much entirely about death, and the Flying Lotus album, which is called You're Dead, and, well, I haven't even gotten into the metal realm; you get the picture.
In the wake of all this death, we have some options in coping. We can be morbid, or pessimistic, or depressed, all of which are certainly valid. We can shut ourselves off from emotion and build up a protective wall, probably the most effective way to go on about our daily lives, pragmatically speaking. We can be angry, which may be the most likely emotion to spark some direct outward action or reaction to death, whether productive or not. Personally, I tend to look inward, in the never-ending quest to figure myself out and my relation to the rest of the world. This is where the Death Blues project has been invaluable to me. Death Blues isn't an obsession with death; it's more an obsession with life—given the unreality of past and future, focus purely the present, which could end at any moment.
The concept of Death Blues exemplifies the music experience of 2014 in that everything is temporary. The trick is facing this with gratitude rather than disappointment. Death Blues, as a three-piece band, may have played its final show at the Riverwest Public House in November, and its ostensible final incarnation, an ensemble performance for Alverno Presents, is only days away. The thought of not being able to experience this project again could fill me with sorrow, or anger that its greatness was not sufficiently appreciated, or a profound thankfulness to have experienced it at all, and excitement about what's to come, from everyone involved. They're all still making music, after all.
The Delphines put out an album in the spring that I have listened to way more times than any other album this year. It was basically the savior of American rock and roll, if you ask me. Little did I know when Hush came out that the band had, in effect, already ceased to be. The Delphines' final performance took place on my radio show last June. I could be frustrated that it didn't feature all members of the band, or I could lament the fact that I only saw the band twice prior, passing up dozens of opportunities because I was so sure they were just getting started, or I could feel incredibly honored that I got to interview them and broadcast their music to the world, and thrilled that a brilliant album like Hush will exist forever.
Forever seems like a long time, but all it really means for us as individuals is now. When I was listening to my number-one for the first time, I was getting to the last song and I felt this incredible wave of gratitude as, for whatever reason, this thought crossed my mind: 'If I die tomorrow, at least I got to hear this.' With that in mind, my hope with this list is that you'll come across something on it, give it a spin, and have that same thought.
TOP 25 ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
[note: Whenever possible, album links are to Bandcamp, by far my favorite modern mode of digital music distribution. No other platform is as fan-friendly and artist-friendly as far as I can tell, especially for local and independent artists, and I'm frequently surprised by how many bigger-name artists are offering their work on Bandcamp as well. In other cases, links are to Spotify. Sorry to those of you who don't use Spotify, but until Bandcamp takes over the world, it'll have to do.]
25. iamamiwhoami, Blue
The clarity of Jonna Lee's vocals is arresting; we're used to her voice drifting airily through a fuzzy haze of effects and dominant synth, but immediately in the first track, an increased melodic sophistication becomes apparent, and it demands clarity, and Lee rises to the occasion, in case any of us doubted whether her naked voice was any good. Obviously the sense of mystery is somewhat diminished, but it's still there, as is the sensuality of the whole production. There's a bit more of a new-age lightness that creeps in sometimes, particularly in "Hunting For Pearls" and "Thin", but it almost makes the eventual plunge into that trademarked yearning warmth all the more absorbing. It's the kind of longing ache that so much synthpop strives for, but few artists achieve it this consistently. Of its ten tracks, only a few achieve the perfect balance of danceability and sadness; the one-two of "Chasing Kites" and "Ripple" is certainly the centerpiece by this metric, a couple of urgent bangers that will conjure up various delirious memories if you ever had a phase where you spent a lot of time dancing to electronic music. Lyrically, it's no revelation perhaps, but I can certainly relate pretty strongly to "Chasing Kites" because what bigger waste of time can there possibly be? Kites are stupid.
24. Old Earth, A Wake In The Wells
I think Old Earth's other two releases from 2014, the EPs All Kill and What one could, to these three, be for?, hit harder initially; they're more experimental, while this full-length displays a more conventional overall style. Maybe Todd Umhoefer prefers to stretch out in unorthodox directions more on the EPs and bring it all together on the LPs; whatever the case, the more I've listened to A Wake In The Wells, the more its songs begin to stand up as beacons of lyrical and musical craftsmanship. It's still classic Old Earth, which means tracks are composed of multiple smaller musical ideas blending sequentially into each other, layers of guitars playing off each other as various collaborators add percussion, vocals and other accoutrements. This time, though, we actually get song titles, allowing us to marvel at possibly Umhoefer's most hook-driven tune yet, "Accept that the mark will outlast you", which forms the end of the first track after the urgent "Well Abandonment" and the meditative "some Gates'll swing wide, for Us". This suite alone displays the broad range of Old Earth's distinctive brand of electric folk, and it boils down to an ever-evolving palette of interplaying guitar motifs, a mastery of atmosphere in both instrument and word, and Umhoefer's grainy, expressive baritone. Not that it affects the album's Numerical Score, but this album also gets my vote for album cover of the year. Old Earth is the one artist going today whose prolificacy is precisely in tune with my thirst for new material, and he still manages to uphold a ridiculous standard of quality. Here's hoping California is equally inspiring to his art for as long as he lives there.
23. Black Monolith, Passenger
This year's Vhöl surrogate! Can we please agree not to invent the term "blackcore", everybody (although if the Brits want to go with "black crust" I'm okay with it 'cause that's funny)? Black Monolith doesn't blend its styles as uniformly as Vhöl, often just alternating between them, but these methods yield sometimes astonishing results. It's incredible the way "Dead Hand" begins as strict hardcore and then slowly, seamlessly morphs into high-speed black metal without giving you a chance to realize what's happening, and they pull off the reverse for "Adhere", before ending it with a hybrid assault. If you dig extreme music I don't see how this could fail to get your blood pumping. Then out of nowhere this blissy post-metal jam "Eris", and somehow it all fits and makes sense. It's crude, even bizarre, but kind of a holy-shit ending to a very impressive album.
22. Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band, Intensity Ghost
This isn't fair to Chris Forsyth, but after experiencing his music live, there's no way a record is going to live up to what I know he's able to create. All the same, Intensity Ghost is a great album, with more advanced and eclectic songwriting than on the initial Solar Motel LP from 2013. "The Ballad Of Freer Hollow" is a terrific introduction to the kind of music you can expect from Forsyth—deeply indebted to Paul Butterfield's "East-West", it's a triumphant slow burn of rich strums and searing improv. The title track is another gem, driving, then settling into a slow groove and building anticipation for the return charge. Possibly the biggest surprise on the album is the melodic floater "I Ain't Waiting", which could almost qualify as an instrumental power-ballad, although Forsyth definitely tells a story with his fingers. I reckon even if its primary effect every time I listen to it is to make me yearn to see Solar Motel live again, that still constitutes a pretty outstanding accomplishment.
21. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty
These guys were out there to begin with, but they truly went off the deep end with this latest album. Lese Majesty is one of the most palpably drugged-out rap albums ever, and a thing of beauty as such. It's jazzy, steeped in hypnotic rhythms and vocal deliveries, punctuated by grand, cryptic philosophy bytes, but its most distinctive feature is its overpowering sonic opiation. Words echo off in multiple directions, making you chase them. The anomalous upbeat glitchpop treatise "#CAKE" late in the album is like a single gasp of fresh air above the impenetrable haze, and it serves to enhance the overall effect, as you dive right back in with "Colluding Oligarchs". That's not to suggest that the lyrics themselves are psychedelic or oblique, but they demand focus. Otherwise you might think the album is a meandering dream sequence. It's not. It's a glimpse inside the mind, yes, but also a skewed skewering of our jaggedly divided American society. Sometimes the mind is the only escape from the madness of it, after all. There's plenty of trip-hop and various electronic styles making their way into rap these days, but nobody surrenders to the pure trip of it like Shabazz Palaces.
20. The Great Old Ones, Tekeli-Li
Even if most traditional black metal is starting to bore you to death, I would urge you to check this album out. It's pretty straightforward on the surface, but after a few more listens the songwriting really starts to separate this album from the pack. The crushing opening riff of "Antarctica" is more of an old-school death/doom guitar glacier, but it quickly gives way to high-speed blackness, and such stylistic variations, though never jarring, are essential to Tekeli-Li's effectiveness. The album is unpredictable on the whole; the dynamic shifts don't follow the customary patterns. Although he's often somewhat buried under layers of production haze (as is tradition), drummer Léo Isnard plays some incredibly intricate fills during the fast parts but is also able to plod relentlessly à la Dale Crover, and his versatility and precision add an extra dimension most bands of this genre never even quest after. There's nothing gimmicky or outlandish about this record; it never strays far from its appointed path, but it still feels very fresh for straight-up black metal.
19. FKA Twigs, LP1
I had LP1 higher on the list to begin with, but it kept dropping, in part because there have been a bunch of late-comers this year, but also because I keep listening to it and finding that its best songs are really fucking amazing, but some others don't stick. "Lights On". "Two Weeks". "Hours". "Video Girl". All just incredible. I've heard "Two Weeks" probably a million times since it came out, and I'm listening to it right now, getting chills. Easily rookie-of-the-year material. Lyrically incisive, even biting, but to the point; no punches pulled, nothing is taboo. Despite the plethora of different producers, there's a powerful overriding atmosphere to the album, too; it's a very complete and unified collection, but the less-than-incredible tracks suffer from the sameness of it all, just a little. And I could totally say the same about Portishead, and Fever Ray, two of the most obvious sonic antecedents to FKA Twigs, both of which I adore. I'm a sucker for this kind of music, and this is the best and most audacious album of its kind since…well, Fever Ray, I guess. Its best songs are unforgettable, and if I were a college kid, maybe they'd become my "Sour Times" and "Wandering Star" and "Glory Box".
18. Perfume Genius, Too Bright
I feel slightly guilty liking this album better than Xiu Xiu's Angel Guts: Red Classroom, but I do. Perfume Genius is basically Xiu Xiu-lite, occasionally caustic but tastefully so, extravagant but not militant, offensive only to idiots. But Mike Hadreas has put together such an engrossing set of tunes here, and with such a range of emotions to swing through, that it winds up being a more powerful journey than the all-out assault of Angel Guts. From "Queen" you might get the idea that it's going to be a wistful dance party in the vein of Twin Shadow or something, but the album is as much about the quiet, pensive bits as it is beats. I hear the opener, "I Decline", as a virtual Dresden Dolls (please be a band again!!!) tribute, flamboyant and defiant and glorious. Hadreas' singing on the faux-lounge romp "Fool" is pretty unreal; there may be a lot of electrons cluttering this thing up but you can't fake that kind of commitment to performance, and if you can fake that kind of actual passion, why, you deserve a statuette of some sort, I guess. Songs like "My Body" and "Grid" stretch their freak-wings, while the title track in particular evokes Antony but also swells into this huge, warm crescendo that reminds me of Animal Collective. Maybe the album trails off a bit after "Longpig" (although the "Don't Leave Me Now" surrogate "I'm A Mother" is pretty riveting), but when all is said and done it feels like Hadreas is still keeping so much hidden. When he truly lets loose we're going to be in for a real treat.
17. Mondkopf, Hadès
This is a disturbing, militant electronic album. Many of the tracks are danceable, but the beats are almost unanimously confrontational, lending an industrial feel to most of the album. There are also the heavy atmospheric elements, introduced in the opening track but used to great effect to build tension on a track like "Immolate", allowing the almost tribal percussion to set the tone while layers of effects drive the dynamic forward and then remain as the beat dissipates or stops abruptly. It's easy to hear this as a post-apocalyptic piece of music; the very coldness of it, the mechanical groans and hums and clangs suggesting a world devoid of organic life, but there are distinctly human touches as well. "Here Come The Whispers" is downright warm once you get past the eerie beginning portion of the track, and "Absences" swells up in a decidedly non-mechanical manner, although the sounds seem more likely alien than terrestrial. There are actual horns in the three title tracks, but they sound like a surrender, if not "Taps". Clearly the machines have won.
16. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire
I think I wasted all my best points about this re-existence of Godflesh in my review of the show. I don't want to belittle anyone who's worked with Justin Broadrick over the years, but they're all degrees of forgotten any time they're not actively in a band with him. The Jesu project was clearly running out of steam, Pale Sketcher seems to have stalled quickly, the Final reboot never really took off and the JK Flesh album…let's say it was aimed at a very narrow target audience. Never one to consider an idea dead, Broadrick reignited Godflesh to the dismay of absolutely no person, and proceeded to pick up where he left off and evolve the project that cemented him in the monument of People Who Will Always Be Paid Attention To. Meet the new boss, he telepathically projects into your brain, same as the old boss. Not those words; just that impression.
15. Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams
After a bit of a retread with 2011's Creep On Creepin' On, Canada's premier gothic folk export came back with a stunner in April. Mere months later, David Lynch announced his return to active service. Coincidence?? Sadly, the chances of any Timber Timbre tunes showing up in the Twin Peaks reboot are probably slim, but Lynch seriously needs to write a movie around Hot Dreams, come on. The title track is the complete creepy-sexy package in itself, and the surf-rock noir of "Curtains!?" and "Bring Me Simple Men" are begging for some kind of bizarre violence to soundtrack. Ah, but whatever imagery the songs conjure up by themselves is plenty beautiful and disturbing enough; the soothing tone of Taylor Kirk's voice is so nonchalantly sinister it's as if he's a ghost, and there's no way to positively determine his motivations when he sings lines like "Each time I see you/I contemplate/What I love most of all/Your swinging gait" ("Run From Me"). Well, to give you the heebie-jeebies; that's his motivation, and he succeeds, but what I like most about this album is how it doesn't stick to the tried-and-true Timber Timbre formula, stretching out backwards and forwards in time, messing with rhythms and tone, basically getting weirder without losing its edge. Some day I will see this band live.
14. Sun Kil Moon, Benji
Normally I scoff at musicians sniping at each other, but I can't deny I've followed Mark Kozelek's public rantings in a state of shameless glee. At first it was just because he was ripping on The War On Drugs, the most overrated band in the world, and chit-chatty "fans" at his shows, the scourge of the modern musical landscape. But then it was because he, unlike every other pop culture celebrity on the planet, refused to backtrack and apologize for stating his opinions. And also, I suppose, because he's got this brilliant new album. I love almost the whole thing, but there are two songs--"Dogs" and "Ben's My Friend"--that do almost nothing for me. At certain times they're liable to make me throw my hands up and say 'who the hell gives a shit?' But I do understand the notion of wanting to express personal things in an attempt to connect, and that the world is becoming a difficult place to do that in. I admire and envy Kozelek for his ability to do so on this scale. This is a new frontier for Kozelek in some ways, this new branch of talkin' blues. On top of its unique stylistic and lyrical and musical merits, there's the very fact of Kozelek writing, singing and recording these tributes and flat-out eulogies that makes this record intensely worthy of praise. I'm not gonna spend any time fact-checking; you merely need to surrender to the concept of it to feel the potency of these sentiments and the mundane words through which they're expressed. And there's Kozelek's seemingly involuntary outburst of gratitude as he sings the line "For helping me along in this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in" ("I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same"), and the brilliant line "I'm not one to pray/But I'm one to sing and play" in "Pray For Newtown", and the moment when the drums come in towards the end of "Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes"…Benji is littered with these bombs of crushing emotional impact. So even if he is a dick, as most musical geniuses are, he has a devastating gift for capturing real human emotion, and who he is in real life makes no difference to how great this album is.
13. Ariel Pink, pom pom
The thing I love most about Ariel's albums is that they're like descending into a different world, an alternate Pink dimension, from beginning to end. It's a creepy retro noir fantasia where even the happiest moments are tinted with a sinister shade, whether it's mere sarcasm or a desire to confuse and intoxicate or downright evil. You're stuck there, you're utterly lost and you're gonna have to make the best of it. So you relate fragmentarily to what you can and thrill vicariously to the notion that someone's mind conjured this shit up. You wouldn't want to live here, but even as a diversion (don't call it perversion) it's such an all-consuming escapism that it becomes a statement. How fucked up is our world that something like pom pom needs to exist? But it totally needs to. For all the tongues in cheeks this is still glorious pop music as well as demented curios, and it's an incredibly emotional journey if you surrender to it. You can then either psychoanalyze yourself to try and determine why which songs make you feel how, or just go with it, man.
12. Medicine, Home Everywhere
Has this band somehow gotten summarily dismissed as a has-been? That's the only explanation I can come up with as to why an album this good isn't getting slobbered over by the press. Or maybe it doesn't adhere strictly enough to the old style? Or, are reunions in fact inherently lame? Do my occasional suggestions otherwise indicate my irrevocable descent into irrelevance? Nice try, but you'll never be rid of me. This is insanely psychedelic shoegaze, ranging from tribal to interplanetary, music that breaks out of a shell of some sort and every once in a while sounds like something radically new for a few measures. Cripes, there's a noise barrage in the middle of "Move Along - Down The Road" that's practically black metal; by the song's end, it gets to a Beach Boys-y place, then explodes into what might be the world's first folk/industrial half-breed. The defining style of the album, if there is one, is like a hybrid of Skeleton Key, Besnard Lakes and old Yeasayer, noisy and groovy and nebulous. Note that those are all bands that came into existence way later than Medicine; what does it mean? If the eleven-minute title track doesn't blow your mind, there's a chamber in your brain that needs badly to be unlocked, but I can't tell you how to do it.
11. Bliss & Alice, Poetry Volume 1 - The Shit Talker Tape
This dude is neck and neck with FKA Twigs for best new artist of the year. Nobody dropped tighter rhymes or a fresher style in all of hip-hop in 2014. The background music is sparse, often not even a beat, as Bliss pours semi-lucid spoken word over jazzy pianos and random percussion, but when he wants to rap for real, he will impress you. He's got the full range from introspection to bravado, but it's never empty posing nor moping. He lets you way inside his head and makes you feel at home there; even if you might be taken aback by some of the imagery there, chances are you can relate in some way. The fact that the title includes the term "Volume 1" suggests there's more where this came from. Personally, I'll be pretty stunned if Volume 2 lives up to this promise—but a guy can dream, so I'll cross my fingers. I'd be tempted to say all he needs is some real production to turn heads in a big way, but any extra augmentation to his sound might detract from the most important elements—namely, lyrics and voice. I don't see any reason to change anything about Bliss's approach. Easily the most exciting Brew City hip-hop debut since Klassik's In The Making.
10. Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy
At first I was a little disappointed by this album. The last Open Mike Eagle release, 4nml Hsptl, remains one of my all-time favorite rap albums. It was a little more sincere and intellectual, clever with a purpose, and as a sometimes painfully serious dork and appreciator of words and language I could relate to it very directly. This year it seems Mike left that task to Milo, the current frontrunner in the (small) field of Eagle disciples, and while I liked Milo's record, it drips with condescension in a way that Eagle's records don't. It's beyond impressive, dizzyingly intelligent, even impassioned at times, but so detached that all its emotion seems to boil down to self-absorption, and thus it doesn't fill that Eagle void at all. So anyway, after I got over my initial reaction to Dark Comedy, I dove into it as a manifestation of its title, which is somewhat redundant coming from Mike to begin with, because he's always been about extracting the tragic elements of life and framing them in a way that's…well, sometimes funny and otherwise, maybe not lighthearted and certainly not frivolous but…maybe it's his warmth that shines through everything, even when he's pissed off about something it's like he's filtering it through a genuine love of humanity and expression. When you get down to it, there aren't a lot of belly-laughs on this record, but there are oodles of giggles, and still a ton of pointed social commentary and disarming everyman poignancy. Maybe in terms of pure wordplay and vocal trickery this album doesn't quite stack up, and in terms of beats it's not as esoteric as his past work, but its more mainstream sound isn't a cash-in by any means, and he's not pulling any punches, either. He just made an album that's more fun to listen to than any of his other ones, and I needed to lighten up and accept that. Once I did, I found nothing whatsoever to pick apart. It'll probably only grow in stature for me as I keep listening over the years, which I will do, because none of his songs have ever gotten old so far.
9. Cult Of Youth, Final Days
Sacred Bones hasn't produced anything that got my heart beating as fiercely as this Cult Of Youth album in quite a while. The vocals remind me a lot of early Man Man, and the tribal beats of "Dragon Rouge" and "Down The Moon" and "Sanctuary" blend in early Animal Collective, but then you've got this raging punk rock attack of "Empty Faction" (tell me the ending doesn't remind you of "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue") and "No Regression", but it's all driven by acoustic guitar and very rudimentary drums, although there are electric guitars and synths and plenty of effects on the vocals. It's psych, no doubt, it's Sacred Bread-and-Butter, but the intent of it is more genuinely psychological and purposeful, not trippy. I feel like the live show would be more genuine spiritual orgy than druggy haze (maybe I'm being naïve when it comes to "Of Amber", but come on, that's more like an adventure-fantasy; give a nerd a break). If it's all a psychedelic ruse, fine; call me a sucker, but Final Days evokes an urgency that doesn't fade away as the sun comes up. It's primal and raw, but even at its most visceral moments it's either divinely delivered or meticulously crafted. Depending on your perspective these may be one and the same.
8. Emptiness, Nothing But The Whole
It was a somewhat weak year for metal, but this record turned my head back in May with its totally original sound and it remains the most interesting and powerful heavy album I've heard this year. Rather than tread the current black metal trend of crusty, lo-fi noise, this is more lush, with rich production values that are particularly effective on Phorgath's demonic vocals, but also when the more death-y elements creep in ("Behind The Curtain", "Tale Of A Burning Man"), it's refreshing to hear a band with enough confidence in its riffs (and they are so choice) to want you to be able to hear them clearly. Nothing runs together on this album; there's an overbearing pessimism and cruelty at work, and the unique vocal style and effects certainly tie the room together, but the songs are very distinct pieces, each one finding a different way to bridge different extreme styles without being a slave to any genre parameters. You can get lost in the atmospheric intertwining lead guitars of "All Is Known" and find yourself thinking you're in the middle of a Neurosis song for fuck's sake, but only for a little while. I can't recall a more eclectic but cohesive combination of beauty and ugliness.
7. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
I still think Strange Mercy is the best St. Vincent album so far, but upon revisiting this album these past few weeks I realized that song after song, this album has stuck with me, forcing me to push my voice to its limits in an attempt to sing along. I wonder if it only sounds less daring and more accessible because Annie Clark has dragged pop music onto a new plane of weirdness and accidentally become the norm. I find it hard to imagine FKA Twigs or even Lana Del Ray coming along and being successful if St. Vincent hadn't first paved the way, but none of the other modern alt-pop sirens have Clark's gift with a melody. There aren't many better ones from this year than the choruses of "Prince Johnny" and "Psychopath". And while I tend to dwell on her lyrics a lot, I'm more captivated by her skill as an arranger on this album. The intricacies of the various electronic elements combined with the horns in "Digital Witness" are like a vivid sonic ecosystem, and the lush synths of "Prince Johnny" and "I Prefer Your Love" still grab my throat every time, I can't help it. And of course, her guitars, the staccato strums of "Birth In Reverse" and the fuzz stabs of "Bring Me Your Loves", and none of it compares to seeing her play this stuff live but it's still powerful. This album is so assured, virtually unassailable, that it's easy to take for granted, but ultimately I think it's going to have more staying power than some of the more "exciting" releases of the year. I feel anxious to get done with this list so I can go back to just listening to it for pleasure again.
6. Ishraqiyun, Perichorisis
If I were to say "this is my favorite band, and this is one of its best albums", would it render this whole exercise meaningless? Even though this is only Number Six? Trey Spruance is either crippled by perfectionism when it comes to making music, or he wants us to think so, until we actually hear it. Then it sounds so effortless, so intrinsically perfect that merely playing what's written is about all that's needed. True, merely playing what's written is often a complex process in itself, so perhaps the process is more similar to Beefheart than we realize, as Trey painstakingly rehearses this music with his bandmates until they can play it in their sleep, and thus their live shows are even more ridiculous than their albums. The truth, of course, is that I have no idea what goes on within the Spruance world, and the mystery of how Secret Chiefs 3 operate is almost as intriguing as the music itself. With each album I suspect that a recording won't come close to capturing the power of the way they've been playing the songs live for years already, but Perichorisis does an amazing job of harnessing the essence of the songs and playing with the subtleties for a greater dynamic (the way they strip "Spiritus Intelligentiae: Jophiel" down to just acoustic instruments before the final blast??), as well as showcasing the breadth of possibilities of Ishraqiyun as a distinct entity within the SC3 umbrella. A few of these songs--"The 15", "Base Phive Futur-Cossacks" "Jophiel", "Saptarshi"--have the potential to become nearly as iconic as the classic Grand Constitution and Book M pieces, if Spruance somehow keeps this thing going. It's got to take a lot out of him, making this incomparable music that seemingly can't be appreciated by very many people. Maybe he's like Beefheart in more ways than I realize.
5. The Delphines, Hush
Each time I come across a local-music nut who doesn't think Hush is a masterpiece, a tiny bit of my faith in humanity slips away. Especially in a town where straight-up rock and roll seems to be the only thing anybody gets truly excited about, how do you not get fired up beyond belief about these songs? It also confounds me as a writer, because I think the brilliance of The Delphines is so self-evident that I get tongue-tied trying to come up with anything beyond 'Shut up, just listen to these songs, what more could you possibly want from rock and roll?' To me this is the greatest rock record since Lonerism (actually, as I glance over this list I think it's the only rock record on here…), lyrics and music that cut to the bone, and I'm going to keep putting these songs on mixtapes and sending them all over the globe for the rest of my life in the hopes that some day this record will get its due, even though the band no longer exists. It's dirty and sexy and raw and beautiful and perfect in every way. Shut up.
4. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
"I never been much of shit/By most measurements don't exist/On the radar a little blip/In the shadow of motherships", El-P spits on the opening track of Run The Jewels 2, which was not really true but is now undeniably false unless he's comparing himself to the Jay-Z/Kanye glitz vortex. This second release as an official tandem with Killer Mike is brilliant in every aspect, which makes you have to fear the invalidation of El's underdog status, but in this case I don't really worry. Even if that humility disappears in the face of increasing bravado, it will be justified.
I will admit, there are a couple times (especially the last stretch of "All Due Respect") when Mike's vocals are exhausting, not for their speed but in the sense that he sounds exhausted, and I think the attempt to astound overreaches, but we're talking about very brief, minor issues. It's just not necessary; the tempo makes almost no difference as to how on-point his and El-P's rhyming skills sound, and these beats are a leap forward for El-P. Clearly there's going to be a sense of urgency, given how quickly RTJ is cranking out music, and it's often minimal to the point of primitive, but not in the sense of retro. There's also a strong sense of desperation and outrage, most potently in "Lie, Cheat, Steal", "Early" and the Zack de la Rocha-infused "Close Your Eyes", that ought to be enough to topple the bourgeois hip-hop hierarchy as well as ignite the masses in a unified expression of defiance against the network of greedy scum and corrupt authority figures that have funneled our country into its current state of disharmony. Unfortunately we're too medicated by our illusions of comfort and security to revolt, and this album is too musically impressive to not be a pleasant listen, over and over again. The first album was great, but it seemed a bit tossed-off at the time. This second album is serious business. These two cats have found a much grander sound than merely the merging of their individual styles.
3. Flying Lotus, You're Dead
You're Dead opens with the portentous clang of a bell, and if we take the album's title as a statement of concept, the ensuing journey makes an awful lot of sense as a musical approximation of the afterlife--if we're lucky. Not only is this a magical capsule of beauty-in-chaos, it's music that was previously unfathomable to anyone except maybe Mr. Bungle fans. Yes, I'm prepared to christen FlyLo "DJ Bungle" at this point, as there has been no more satisfying, electrifying symbiosis of nearly every extant genre of music since the turn of the century. Obviously in this case you can substitute hip-hop for Bungle's metal component, which also intrinsically makes the sonic stew much more flowing and ultimately more cohesive. There are glimpses of heaven and hell throughout the record, and so many twists and turns and layers that you're going to keep discovering new things to love about it for years. When I discovered that this term "nu-jazz" has been around for a while I had to laugh; is that what Bungle was, too? But when I think of how I was a bit let down by 2012's Until The Quiet Comes for being too much like Cosmogramma, and now this giant leap forward into uncharted waters that FlyLo has taken, I wonder if we need to create another new term (NOT IT), because if that old shit was nu-jazz, it can have that lame tag. As good as all of FlyLo's stuff has been, this is waaaay better.
2. Death Blues, Ensemble
For the past two years or so, I've attempted to make clear some of the things that Death Blues has meant to me. Many of the things it has meant to me, nobody else will ever know. It's something that a lot of people will dismiss as a tired new-age treatise if they've never actually considered it literally and deeply, but if they have, it becomes a concept so personal that it splits off in directions only the person contemplating it could ever understand. It's the entire collection of our life experiences, and the resultant projection of those experiences into the unavoidably finite yet, as far as we can fathom, infinite future, as deeply as we dare to go. There will be no end to the fine-tuning of our understanding of the implications of our mortality; it necessarily changes with each tick of the clock, but if we force ourselves to concentrate on the reality of it, we can get ever closer to appreciating the eternal now. The past does not actually exist, nor does the present. They are imaginary distortions of the present.
The music on Ensemble somehow captures this, for me. I encourage you all to read the essays, attend the events, and meditate on the concepts by yourself, but you needn't even pay attention to any of these elements in order to feel the power of this music. There have been other incarnations of Death Blues that have contributed to my particular appreciation of it, just as you have your experiences that will lead you to your appreciation of it. Regardless of everything that has happened before now, I'll be shocked—shocked—if you don't find Ensemble, all by itself, to be gorgeous. You'd have to be out of your mind. But in truth, I probably already think you're crazy.
1. D'Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah
I feel somewhat lucky that I never listened to D'Angelo before this year. On the endless list of Things I Need To Go Back And Familiarize Myself With In Order To Understand The History Of Popular Music, I tend to shuffle contemporary artists who may or may not ever make more music to the bottom. So I failed to get caught up in the instantaneous excitement a lot of folks felt when Black Messiah officially dropped. Besides, I was in the middle of a debilitating Wilco binge. 'I'll check out the D'Angelo thing after lunch', I decided.
Then, about three songs in, I felt like throwing a party. About halfway through my second listen through, I realized there ought to be a worldwide celebration that this thing exists, and the next day (a Tuesday) should be a one-off holiday so everyone could have a proper listening party tonight and not have to get up early tomorrow. The world should really shut down tomorrow, I thought. That didn't happen, but my Wilco binge was officially over.
Black Messiah can't be the middle of anything. Ideally this album would usher in a whole new era, but if it merely invalidates the era it's a part of and brings it to a halt, that would be okay too. One thing's for sure: They don't make grooves like this any more, if they ever did. The notion that Pino Palladino was previously wasting his talents working with the crumbling lunatic corporation currently calling itself The Who is a travesty. The contrast of movement and breathable space created by him and ?uestlove on this album is revelatory. You wonder sometimes what's actually being played, whether there are notes or if it's just the channeling of a universal cosmic heartbeat. "1000 Deaths", for instance: This groove is completely unprecedented, absolute madness, leaving me with no idea what just happened every time it finishes. Mainly, though, it's the otherworldly synth sounds from D'Angelo himself, and his alien falsetto harmonies, that make the music so unique and brilliant. I won't parrot Wikipedia as if I knew all along what he was doing with those keyboards, but in several instances they do sound like nothing else I've ever heard.
For all the technology and flourishes involved, it sounds incredibly unprocessed, smooth, lush, natural, like the polar opposite of Kanye. It's the sound of a Master, effortlessly creating a modern classic. It sounds timeless.
Twenty-fourteen was a rough year, you guys. The world felt like a giant black and white cookie with a huge crack down the middle. I don't have any grand pipe dreams about the unifying powers of pop music, but what do I know? It's never gonna happen with rock and roll or hip hop, but if we can't come together on whatever this Black Messiah shit is, we are doomed.
ELEVEN MOST HONORABLE MENTIONS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER
Anathema, Distant Satellites
For a while I was determined not to put this on the list, because it's clearly the diminishing returns of 2012's Weather Systems style. But Weather Systems was SO GOOD, and Distant Satellites, while not quite as good, is still REALLY GOOD. It's boils down to the cheese factor. The downright sappiness of some elements of Weather Systems, even its absurd conceptual-meteorology bullshit and especially its psych-spiritual generalities, work to its favor, creating something endearingly earnest, while the more fine-tuned and serious attitude of Distant Satellites sacrifices some of that unbridled passion for a more determined and well-crafted batch of songs. And it's terrific, it's still Anathema, improbably, in what has to be the twilight of its career, back on top of its world, and don't get me wrong, still cheesy as hell. The qualities I've always loved in Anathema are all here in some shape or form. I can't foresee taking the "Lost Song" trilogy or the title track or "You're Not Alone" or the song "Anathema" off my iPod in the near future, and there can't be a more perfect capsule of what this band has always been about than that eponymous song. "But we laughed/And we cried/And we fought/And we tried/And we failed/BUT I LOVED YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU", come on, that is some sweet, sweet anguish.
Eyvind Kang, Alastor: Book Of Angels Volume 21
John Zorn's Book Of Angels series keeps on rolling, and this is one of the best installments yet. The most predictable thing I could say, after Zorn has doled out his Masada material to a good three dozen different artists to interpret, is that Eyvind Kang truly makes it his own, but somehow, you could say that about almost every artist in the series, and also that they all lay bare the indelible influence Zorn has had on their individual careers. In essence, it sounds just like an Eyvind Kang album, and also just like John Zorn. Of course, this particular pairing was destined for greatness, as Kang and Zorn have both spent their careers twisting a Western existence into various Eastern motifs; Kang has merely excelled in Eastern instrumentation as well, but the compositions here are truly collaborative and synchronous. There's a large cadre of de facto Zorn disciples out there, and Kang could be lumped in with them perhaps, but it has always seemed like more of a mutual admiration and delight in creating that unites Zorn with all of his cohorts, like even if he's been at this the longest and clearly isn't out there recording albums full of their music, everyone's on even footing, maybe even trying to outdo each other in the most basic sense. They urge each other on to greater heights. I'll be wading through the Zorn pantheon until I'm dead and might never have even a competent grasp of it, but it seems to keep getting better.
Marissa Nadler, July
In the early part of the year, this was my go-to maudlin morning music, for drab Mondays or dragging mid-week workdays or dreading-social-interaction Fridays. I love the lyrics on here, especially "Dead City Emily" and "Drive" and "Nothing In My Heart", and Marissa Nadler's voice is gorgeous and haunting in every note, particularly singing the superb melodies and harmonies found in "Anyone Else" and "Drive" and "Firecrackers". I fully expected this album to be a top-tenner, but as is often the case, I came upon so much great shit towards the end of the year that July fell by the wayside, and listening to it now I still love it but after an awful lot of listens over the year I still can't name half the songs off the top of my head, because other than those I've mentioned, they sort of blur together as a singular morose dirge. That's a potent achievement but it's not really where my head's at. I think if last winter had just continued all year this would probably still be near the top of my list, but I'm just not very depressed any more.
Primordial, Where Greater Men Have Fallen
Here's a band that's sort of turning into AC/DC, or perhaps the Irish Amon Amarth? Their albums have been so similar on the whole, I end up seesawing on them, loving one, then being relatively nonplussed by the next. I'm beginning to suspect it's arbitrary, and maybe some day I can revisit them all with a more seasoned historical perspective and assess them more critically. Okay, there is a gradual arc, I suppose; the black metal element has largely been seeping away, which is not by any means a criticism; it's not like Primordial was ever a traditional black metal band. Alan Averill continues to get better and better as a vocalist, and his lyrics get more and more anthemic. Otherwise, the different production approaches are the primary difference between albums. I think the glossier production of 2011's Redemption At The Puritan's Hand helped bring out some of the band's beefier riffs and enhance the heroism of the sound, while on Where Greater Men Have Fallen, the riffs often get buried in the murk. I suppose you can argue it's an intentional retreat to a blacker sound, but I don't think that really suits Primordial any more. I'd prefer that the band throw itself into brazen mythology-metal and be okay with it. Still, on a purely vocal level, this album is a peak achievement, and if you want metal you can easily decipher the words to, maybe even relate to, and feebly sing along to, you couldn't do much better. I still think there are very few better metal bands out there, and that this is a terrific album, but I bet I'll like the next one better.
Andy Stott, Faith In Strangers
I'm anticipating that this album will only rise in my estimation over time, but I didn't discover it until recently, which I guess is one of the benefits of not putting your music on Spotify or Bandcamp? You don't get the honor of being higher up on Cal's end-of-year list, OH NO! Just based on a few spins, this album contains several of the most interesting electronic pieces I've heard in a while; "No Surrender" is particularly wild, blipping between several different completely different motifs and then reintroducing them to each other over the course of five minutes. It reminds me of The Field, only less subtle; the half-glimpsed fragments of sounds, the rolling, gradual distortions and compounding recombinations, the ever-shifting dynamics, only Stott isn't afraid to bash you over the ears with harsh sounds or jolt you with abrupt deconstructions, but the beat remains sacred. I'm not much good with electronic subgenres but this seems to cover a wide range of styles, almost like it's prog-techno, so I'll just let you purists fume over that.
Sun Glitters, Scattered Into Light
I love the title of this album; it should allow you at least a decent guess at what you'll be hearing if you put it on, which is a lot of different sounds that come together into a very cohesive overall style. It's got that moody-synthpop atmosphere but there's nothing very commercial about it, and although you could call it 'busy' it has a soothing quality to it and never feels like it's frying your brain with an overload of ideas. It's also not overly catchy, favoring somewhat obscure vocals that float in and out of decipherability, often just instrumental elements of the pastiche. Again, I hear a definite Field influence at times, particularly in the rhythmic basis for "Three, Four Days" as well as the title track. Or maybe in the wake of Cupid's Head I hear The Field in everything; I wouldn't put it past me, but let's just say I mean it as a compliment. This album gets the award for best promo I received from some poor, deluded PR person who thinks I still write for the AV Club or something.
Swans, To Be Kind
I enjoy this record, I appreciate this record, I love Michael Gira and I love Swans, but this one didn't do nearly as much for me as The Seer. It's basically more of the same, and I'm grateful to have it as a continuation of the style and intent of The Seer, and it's not fair that this almost-as-good followup sinks so low in my estimation. I know there are folks who prefer My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and folks who prefer To Be Kind, and there's not much of a concrete argument I can make as to why I prefer The Seer. Mostly I just prefer being at a live Swans performance and whatever happens, happens. The Seer and ensuing tour made me a Gira disciple for life. To Be Kind does nothing to shake that condition. Although I hate to say it but "Toussaint L'Ouverture" gets a little tedious for me. Musically it has great moments but it means the least to me of almost any Swans song I know. Most of Gira's lyrical drones reach me on some level, but not this one. Otherwise, yes, it's a great album.
The guitar tone is so DIY it drives me crazy. It sounds like a high school metal band from the 90s sometimes. I want to be an engineer just to explain how this album might've been a world-takeover kind of album. But with the deep dark riffage and that bass, and those Steve-Austin-meets-Ihsahn vocals, and these songs, the tone manages to suffice. Sometimes it's beefy and only slightly hampered by the production, and sometimes, particularly in the quieter moments and some of the big layered chug sessions, it's perfect. It honestly reminds me of Today Is The Day musically as well, because there's a very simplistic, garage-y riff tendency at the heart of these epics, and a determination not to be deterred by a grotesquely catchy melody amidst the caustic seepages. This is slower, doomier and nowhere near as belligerent or schizophrenic as TITD, but it methodically gets to the same depths of brutality on an often Earth-like trajectory. When Bryan Funck screams "WE ARE NOTHING" in the depths of "At The Foot Of Mt. Drisskill", it's only the beginning of a litany of pessimism and disbelief—very Austin-esque, come to think of it. Keep your wits about you, though; this album will try to blindside you with joyous, major-chord bliss when you least expect it. Just don't expect it to last.
Today Is The Day, Animal Mother
The album opens with what sounds like a hardcore tribute to the intro of King Crimson's "VROOOM", then gets quickly into the bluntly demented mind of Steve Austin and never looks back. He'd been getting progressively poppier with each release since 2004's Kiss The Pig, which was not by any means a bad thing (nor even conceivable by any non-obscure metric), but it's refreshing to hear him diving back into the complexity and harshness of the In The Eyes Of God era (and a nod to Temple Of The Morning Star with these acoustic/electric versions of "Outlaw"), not quite as chaotic nor mathematical as those halcyon days (nor as eloquent, shall we say), but who dreams up riffs like the opening one from "Sick Of Your Mouth" these days? Who commits music as caustic and psychotic as "Imperfection" to tape? Twenty-two years into his career, Steve still finds a way to capture primitive human emotion in a way that is ageless, oblivious to any pervading trend, yet still grasping in many directions at sounds that seem incompatible (don't look now, but parts of "Masada" sound just like Pantera) (and parts of "Heathen" sound just like Godflesh, what's your point?) (I'm just saying, maybe Steve should replace Zakk as the dude pathetic enough to be the Dimebag surrogate in the inevitable Pantera reunion) (but you're not serious) (no, of course not, may God strike me dead if Steve joins Pantera). It's only Steve and his guitar that tie everything together. "YOU FUCKED UP MY MIND", he screams in "Mystic", and you believe him. Although at first I thought he was screaming "YOU FUCKED UP MY EYE", which would've been funnier.
TV Girl, French Exit
Come for the earworms ("Birds Don't Sing", "The Getaway", "Lovers Rock"), stay for a never-ending game of spot-the-sample. So far I've only spotted one, but it's so brief and so obscure that I can't imagine catching it if it weren't from an album I've listened to thousands of times and know every nuance of (although "Come When You Call" contains a Liz Phair reference, though not a sample, which is always cool). So there have to be dozens more snippets I ought to be picking up on, but I don't wanna cheat. So I keep listening, and I start to really enjoy a lot of these sentimental/goofy/clever lyrical ideas (like Before Sunrise in musical form, sometimes), and the instrumental melodies, whether sampled or not, stick with me. I see no reason why some of these tunes couldn't be radio hits, or at least club hits in Europe, although a lot of them do sound vaguely retro. But maybe that's because the only time I spent in clubs in Europe was in the 90s, or maybe it's because they have a timeless quality? Too soon to tell. Fun stuff no matter how you slice it, though.
You've got the tight, polished death metal of Akercocke, and the overall sophistication of the attitude and music, but the added bonus of a broader dynamic of harshness and melody, to the point where it's downright prog. And it's so, so well done. It's theatrical, it borders on cheesy at times, but it's self-aware, a deliberately grotesque vision of the urges and impulses of human life. And yes, you're damn right it's a concept album. There's narration, but it isn't intrusive; in a few interludes it enhances what I can only assume is the grey, wet, potentially disillusioning environs of the titular city. Ultimately London becomes a backdrop, or possibly a metaphor, for a broken relationship, and as you might expect from these guys, the girl (presumably named "Megan") doesn't exactly get painted in flattering colors. It's the sort of album that can intrigue you and mortify you at once, an audacious blend of brutality and melodrama, knowing they're going to turn off if not alienate some people within minutes, but if you can handle it, it's going to suck you in just as quickly.
TOP TEN LOCAL ALBUMS I WAS UNABLE TO CONVINCE TYLER AND MATT TO PUT ON THE MILWAUKEE RECORD LIST (or neglected to push for)
Well yes, it's bizarre music, and not in a deliberate, artsy way like Beefheart but also not without its pointed bits of social commentary, however many levels of irony you might care to pile on it. Perhaps tracks like "Big Ole Buddy Pie" and "Microwave Behavior" are only good for a laugh, but actually, they're good for at least a handful of laughs per song, which is economical. Still, there's no denying the sheer brilliance of "Dippy Time", don't even attempt to argue this. Aaron Freeman wishes he could still write weird songs this good, and Zoogz Rift applauds loudly from the great beyond every time someone plays "Dippy Time". Combine it with "Breathe On Me", "Hoopula", "Hippopotamussy" and others, and you get a feel for the essence of the sound Scrimshaw concentrates on live, a bouncy, loping goof-punk style that's constructed to seem sloppy but is actually derived from an obscure mathematical formula you wouldn't understand. Researchers are still trying to solve it, in fact, but it has something to do with hot dogs.
SD Laika, That's Harakiri
I would've fought harder to get this album on the Milwaukee Record list if I'd heard it (or heard of SD Laika) sooner than a few days before our deadline. Such is the sad state of my local electronic scene awareness. Compared with 2013's bounty, this year was pretty weak on the electronic front overall, but That's Harakiri grabbed me immediately with its unique blend of harshness and flow. SD Laika makes the actual percussion of the beats get stuck in your head, turning the esoteric poundings into hooks and letting the quasi-melodic elements become the backbone. This album is basically on par with the Andy Stott album mentioned above in terms of unique synthetic music, but it's got a bit more of guttural bent, less of a focus on beats, and more found sounds in the mix, so it strikes me as more organic and primal than any of the other electronic stuff I heard in the past year or so. It's dark, dirty, at times disorienting; go ahead and look it up on rateyourmusic.com if you need specific tags, but whatever you do, don't skip it if the fringes of experimental music intrigue you at all. This album is amazing.
gauss, Electromagnetic Fields Control Our Lives
I'm baffled that this record hasn't gotten more love around town. It's a post-rock/hardcore mashup that splits the dynamic up between atmospheric and lyrical, contemplative and abrasive, with a sort of nonchalant confessional vocal style that ought to remind you of Slint even if nothing else does. But overall, it's much harsher than Slint, the mellower moments imbued with added weight due to the knowledge that shit's about to get extremely noisy before long. Whichever genre standard you hold these songs up to, they don't generally do what you expect them to do. They're really satisfying in their unpredictability, and they show incredible promise, especially considering how they've been honed and perfected since several of them first appeared on the murky live At Candleland recording in 2013. I'm incredibly stoked to hear some new material from these guys/not at all tired of listening to this debut.
Kinth, Psychological Manipulation
Is it mean of me to say you can tell this is electronic music made by a folkie? No, no way; the artist also known as J Flash can't help but tell the occasional story and pluck the occasional string even on this beat-driven, quasi-ambient collection of songs. What's most striking is the way each track is a tune, and yet the album is very Eno-esque in its ability to exist in the background or as a vehicle until you familiarize yourself with it. It doesn't take long for songs like "I Can Dance", "Rory's Rainbows", and especially "Consider It" to worm their way into your mental pathways. Psychological Manipulation is no high-tech marvel, but it's a proper collection of fresh, unusual electronica, spiked with some moody guitar flavors and various degrees of lyrical accompaniment. I only heard a few electronic albums this year that were comparably interesting.
Strange Matter, Ennui Actuation Dissolver EP
Admittedly, this ten-minute 7" is scarcely long enough to qualify for a list, but this thing is so good it has to be mentioned. Guitars and vocal chords antagonized in a most satisfying manner. Minute-long blasts of sarcasm and outrage. But not straight-up hardcore; they're almost like prog spasms compressed beyond belief until distortion bleeds out of everything that's making a sound. If you're into this sort of music, these tirades will soon become your tirades, and/or you'll recognize that they already are.
Lotus Ash, The Word Of God EP
Is Lotus Ash sludge metal? Stoner rock? Post-metal? Ha ha, trick question—those are all the same thing now! Before you know it—if it isn't already—doom metal will also be the same thing (and if we're lucky, "blackgaze" too (BARF)). This is the creeping effect of Pitchfork suddenly being convinced a few years ago that black metal doesn't all sound like just a bunch of noise; now all the terms are getting jumbled and the music is blurring together. The only thing that separates palatable, mid-tempo heavy bands is songwriting, and Lotus Ash has that particular craft down. The songs on The Word Of God stack up with any release of 2014 in this broad category, and the energy of the playing is fresh and palpable, a unique mixture of accessibility and brutality. It's only a half-hour long, but barring maybe Pallbearer's Foundations Of Burden it could be the gateway-metal record of the year.
Shoegaze is hip again (or at least a couple months ago it was), but most of the revivalists haven't done much more than recycle the sound and maybe add a few new gadgets to the drone of effects. Piles, though, are doing something notably fresh. Blazing psych-punk with tentacles in garage and krautrock, this record flies by like one nineteen-minute venting session, reverb and other effects cranked to eleven. You might envision a dense concoction of smoke and indeterminate fumes clouding the room as these songs were recorded, the walls pulsating in various colors, instruments and humans disintegrating along with the haze once the music ends and the dust settles. It's quite invigorating. There's nothing much to analyze or agonize over. Just strap in and listen.
Apollo Vermouth, Fractured Youth
Somewhere in between ambient and noise is the Apollo Vermouth domain. Using just an electric guitar, Alisa Rodriguez conjures vast, seething soundscapes that range from the warm oscillations of "Burning Pages" and "Vacant Lots" to the creeping, icy void of "Lust" and "Aftertaste". It's not so cut and dried, though; the variations within the tracks pull you into constantly changing degrees of bliss and despair, making you realize how intertwined those emotions can be. How you relate to the music will depend on your mindset going in, but this is the kind of sound that can awaken vivid images in your mind--and that local filmmakers ought to be clamoring to use in their films. Get on that, kids!
Sat. Nite Duets, Los DJs EP
It's time to acknowledge the fact that we're taking Sat. Nite Duets for granted. I'll admit it, at least. When I first caught wind of them I started going to see them live every chance I got, and they were instantly one of my favorite bands in town. Lately, I haven't been giving them their due, though. I haven't seen them since Locust Street Fest 2013, which was a letdown of a show, but certainly no excuse to abandon them. Then they put out this terrific EP in 2014, every bit as good as their previous albums, equally guaranteed to be a blast in the live setting, yet here I sit, IN MY RIVERWEST HOME, going a year and a half without seeing them live. Lame. It's true that there's been a wicked flurry of exciting new local bands in the past couple of years, and I'm perfectly comfortable using that as my excuse, but it's bullshit that I've let this band drift to the outer edge of my radar. Weird to think it, but the Duets are kind of becoming scene vets after six years of making music. I need to go see if their live show is still as electrifying as it was when they first got going. What I really don't want is for this EP to slip through the cracks. These tunes are killer. Hopefully it's just me who's been slacking, and the rest of you have been dutifully paying attention and going to shows this whole time.
M-Nat, The Rise
This album is very pop, very accessible, and not at all ground-breaking; I'll admit these are all normally strikes against a rap album for me. I don't even think M-Nat's got a particularly amazing or distinctive vocal style. What he has is a knack for writing memorable songs, and a genuine talent for rhythmic delivery. With a start like this, he ought to have plenty of time to develop a signature sound. He's already got songs like "Pray For You" and "No Distractions" and "Who I Am" and, yes, "Love My Bitches", songs that get stuck in my head just by typing the words and are tough to get out, and somehow I don't mind. (Is this where I should mention that I still think Drake's Take Care is amazing?) Nat also has a message, stories to tell, not the clichés of street life nor the bravado of opulence but a more modest vision of rising above struggle and stereotypes and believing in yourself. I know, it sounds trite, but as I've said many times before, the truth is often a lot cheesier than we'd like it to be. There are a lot of clever rhymes here, and an earnest drive, and artistry as well as slick production values. It's an album-length life-story-so-far about a dude trying to make it, just like we all are.
Mortgage Freeman, Streetcrusher
I slept on this album for too long before realizing it sort of hampered the effectiveness of my memory foam mattress topper. Then I found out that a couple of cursory listens while distracted by other tasks aren't going to do these songs justice; there's way too much going on. There are a few things that set these unabashed proggers apart from their peers. First of all, who in Milwaukee is even making decent prog any more? I can only think of Fibonacci Sequence, who've supposedly been working on their second album for like the past eighteen years. Is Alpha Transit still a band? The Danglers? Okay, other than Sigmund, but he's basically his own genre. Secondly, Freeman has a sense of humor, Zappa-style, theatrics included. There's not a whiff of showing off, nor groan-inducing hair-metal junk. Thirdly, Freeman is ten times better live than on record, which is a rarity in the prog world, and Streetcrusher's only downfall. I've seen many of these songs live and they crushed the studio versions. The songs--"Eliminator", "Pallisades" and "Caves" being my faves--are still killer, however, and they become more endearing the more I keep hearing them. Plus, no more waking up with back pain!
THE TOP 25 SONGS OF THE YEAR
[note: You can hear these 25 songs and many more in these playlists I've made. People still do that, right? Shit, I'm so desperate for you to hear all this music, I made playlists in Spotify and mp3 ones that you can download from Dropbox. They'll be slightly different, of course, due to discrepancies between what I actually own and what Spotify has the rights to; for instance, "Dippy Time" is not on Spotify, so be aware of that, and Spotify also designates NO/NO as "No End In Sight" for some reason, but on my computer it plays the NO/NO song so I'm chalking it up as yet another bug Spotify will never fix and hoping it plays the NO/NO song when you play it, too. I've even filtered the playlists somewhat so you won't have any death metal ambushing you unless you really want it. Also, thanks to certain individuals whose lists/playslist I've stolen tracks from because they were awesome. Sincerest form of flattery...?
2014: beats (Spotify) (Dropbox)
2014: heavy (Spotify) (Dropbox)
2014: other (Spotify) (Dropbox)
1. "Careless", The Delphines
2. "Dippy Time", Scrimshaw
3. "Queen", Perfume Genius
4. "1000 Deaths", D'Angelo
5. "I'm A Man", Dogs In Ecstasy
6. "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)", Run The Jewels feat. Zack De la Rocha
7. "Two Weeks", FKA Twigs
8. "Anathema", Anathema
9. "Dead Man's Tetris", Flying Lotus feat. Captain Murphy & Snoop Dogg
10. "mademoiselle", bliss & alice
11. "Miss You Now", Canopies
12. "Mr Noah", Panda Bear
13. "Qualifiers", Open Mike Eagle
14. "Prince Johnny", St. Vincent
15. "Dinosaur Carebears", Ariel Pink
16. "New York Morning", Elbow
17. "Providence", Antemasque
18. "Accept that the mark will outlast you", Old Earth
19. "Chasing Kites", iamamiwhoami
20. "Vicarious Lover", Voices
21. "Broken Down", DJ Quik feat. Suga Free & Dom Kennedy
22. "Baby, Jesus (Jelly Boy)", Happyness
23. "Fuck, I'm In Love", The Celebrated Workingman
24. "Hùbris", Blut Aus Nord
25. "Happy Idiot", TV On The Radio
TOP 20 LISTENED-TO ALBUMS OF 2014, DISCOUNTING VIA CD, VINYL AND OTHER INSTANCES THAT LAST.FM COULDN'T SCROBBLE, IN CASE IT HAPPENS TO VINDICATE OR INVALIDATE THE LIST ABOVE FOR YOU
1. The Delphines – Hush
2. Tame Impala – Lonerism
3. Death Blues – Ensemble
4. John Lennon – Anthology
5. Pony Bwoy – Pony Bwoy
6. Anathema – Distant Satellites
7. Paul McCartney – NEW
8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
9. The Notwist – Close To The Glass
10. Scrimshaw – H/(M+T) = -H
11. Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
12. U2 – Songs Of Innocence
13. Marissa Nadler – July
14. Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
15. The Delphines – God Help the Delphines EP
16. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
17. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
18. Ramones – All The Stuff (And More) Vol. 1
19. Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom
20. Forest Swords – Engravings
Okay, I think that's it for this year. Feel free to comment and fill me in on what I'm being an idiot about! Or even what you agree with me about. Just be aware that ALL comments are moderated, so they won't appear right away. They might not appear for hours if I'm asleep or doing other things. But they WILL appear, unless you're a spammer or obviously just being a dick. Have a terrific 2015, folks! And if you actually read this stuff, seriously, THANK YOU.